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How does the pandemic affect families who were already struggling?

A grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development enables University of Rochester psychology professors and the University's Mt. Hope Family Center to study long-term impacts of the pandemic on families. “The study seeks to identify factors that helped families cope, in order to inform best interventions for families at risk," says principal coinvestigator Melissa Sturge-Apple. (Getty Images photo)

Rochester psychologists have been awarded federal funding to study the pandemic’s long-term effects on family cohesion and child well-being.

About a year and a half after COVID-19 rapidly spread around the globe, scientists have begun to examine the pandemic’s long-term societal effects. University of Rochester psychologists and the University’s Mt. Hope Family Center have been awarded a $3.1 million grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to study the pandemic’s implications for American families and parenting. 

The study’s principal coinvestigators, psychology professors Melissa Sturge-Apple and Patrick Davies, expect acute negative effects on family functioning and family cohesion to last for years, especially in families that already experienced high levels of difficulties prior to the pandemic.

While scientifically sound, measures to slow the pandemic—such as stay-at-home orders, remote instruction, and limited public gatherings—had negative repercussions on families.

“The pandemic has been extremely stressful for families with significant worries about the health of family members, financial instability, food uncertainty, social isolation, and increased caregiving burdens associated with having children at home,” says Sturge-Apple, who is also the University’s vice provost and dean of graduate education. “The study seeks to identify factors that helped families cope, in order to inform best interventions for families at risk.”

How and why COVID amplifies family conflict

During the pandemic, the incidence of domestic violence in the US surged, with estimates ranging between a 21 to 35 percent increase. These statistics are particularly distressing in the context of already high levels of harsh parenting, as documented in Davies and Sturge-Apple’s work, even before the pandemic.

“By following families before, during, and after the pandemic, we will be able to assess more precisely how and why COVID-19 may amplify conflict between parents that then spills over into the way they care for their children,” says Davies. “Our study will examine a number of different mechanisms at neurobiological, familial, and extrafamilial levels.”

What helped secure the NICHD funding was the existence of a recent three-year family study at Mt. Hope Family Center immediately prior to the onset of the pandemic, which provides a baseline against which the additional COVID-19 stressors and effects can be measured. The teams plan on three additional annual waves of data collection.

Understanding the public health significance is crucial for developmental scientists, clinicians, and public policy advocates in order to develop evidence-based treatments and interventions that help struggling families.

The NICHD will award the grant funding over five years.

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